Photo #1: At age 17, I have a layered shag, highlighted in skunky streaks. I’m wearing a Blondie T-shirt, even though I have no idea who Blondie is, and holding a laptop to my face with one hunched shoulder. My hands throw up in surprise as my mother catches me with her camera on my way out the door.
Photo #2: At age 17, wearing a starched suit, he poses outdoors under a tree on his way to a homecoming dance. With his paleness and cold yet striking gaze, he looks like one of those vampires from Twilight, timeless and elegant. I would definitely have given him another look.
These are spontaneous moments of youth, immortalized in the album I gave my husband on our first anniversary, full of scanned photos of each of us. There’s me on a beach in Vietnam, balanced on a concrete beam. Him in a jacket knocking on a maple tree to the north. Us at Halloween, each in our respective costumes, and later at high school graduations, arms wrapped around friends we no longer keep track of. All the photos lead up to the very first one we took together, smiling in the stadium at a Cubs game in 2006.
As teenagers, due to our seven year age difference, the two of us would never have existed in the same room together. While he was 17, I was 10, still kissing my stuffed animals every night before bed. When I was 17, he was 24, buying a modest first home with a friend, in a city where you could do such things on two entry-level salaries. When we met – 29 and 22 at a karaoke bar in Chicago – it was one of those meetings that could only have happened at that specific time, in that specific place. A few months earlier and we wouldn’t have been ready. A few months later, I had moved to Boston, where I thought my career would take me. Instead we met. We ended up staying in Chicago for a few years and got engaged. The end and the beginning.
the time traveller’s wifean HBO show based on Audrey Niffenger’s book of the same name, is also based in Chicago, near the neighborhood where we first met and later lived in a century-old apartment building on El, where the pocket doors never closed and the smell of our neighbors’ bacon seeped through the vents in our bedroom.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the novel, about a time-travelling man named Henry who meets his future wife Clare back in time when she’s six and he’s 36. He keeps falling for her in her family’s garden until they finally meet in their “real” timeline, when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. Of course, Clare recognizes him from those visits to the garden and is ready to start their relationship. However, Henry is a cad at that age and nowhere near ready to begin a relationship with the love of his life. It’s a problem of timing. Clare is distraught over “Young Henry”, a pale imitation of the nuanced, loving 36-year-old Future Henry with whom she has fallen in love over the years. She often says that she cannot see herself with young Henry; she tells him she will her Henrik. And isn’t that how it often goes? We may meet a person early in life and not see them with eyes of the heart until much later. Or we might look back at someone we fell head over heels with once and wonder, Why? Timing, like love, is a confusing mixture of luck and will.
After my husband and I watched the show – a darker, grittier adaptation than the 2009 Eric Bana/Rachel McAdams film – We started to speculate.
“Would we have met in high school?” I asked him.
“Surely not. You were too cool for me.”
“I was anything but,” I laugh. “I was in orchestra. You wouldn’t have even noticed me.”
I try to hide my hurt that he ruled our hypothetical high school relationship impossible. But we had very different interests. Although I might have wanted something else, we probably wouldn’t have noticed each other. He attended a Catholic high school and played sports. His competitive streak has become family history; fellow parents in his hometown still comment on his epic tantrums during football games.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t kick a ball to save my life. I obsessively tracked my GPA for the escape route that was out of state college. I read constantly and worked at chain restaurants after school. For a time I had an inexplicable interest in Irish mythology. Back then I fell for the motley types who would rather quote Nietzsche than participate in a team sport.
Clare eventually fell in love with young Henry, for all his youthful indiscretions, but I doubt my husband would have fallen for me had we met earlier in life. I’ll always think of the narrow chasm that opened between our lives in our twenties—a gust of wind rushing through the open doors of a sticky-floored dive bar, a touch on the lower back that felt prescient. I want to think about how we came so close to missing it completely.
There’s a TikTok trend of spouses posting pictures of themselves as “teenage dirtbags” alongside pictures of their current spouses. The archetypes rise here: theater kids with dark eyeliner alongside women flipping luxurious tresses over their shoulders; bespectacled bookworms side-eyeing musicians with the hair flop that would have made many a 90s heart drop. The caption usually reads something like, “15-year-old me would never have believed who they ended up with.”
It’s one of those sweet trends that encapsulates the wonder that many feel towards their partners. How was I chosen by you?
But sometimes I think about how absolutely unlikely it is that we Stay together. Given that we all evolve so much, through age and experience and trauma, it’s not magical when things happen do work out?
I am a different woman than I was in my twenties. Today I am much bolder and blunter. Intimacy is harder to win, though the tenderness that I am able to offer seems to have been excavated from deep within me, like a jagged crystal. I like to think I don’t suffer fools, although I often end up being one myself. And my husband has grown into one of the most thoughtful, sensitive people I know. He has become more protective of our family. He cries more easily. In short, I’ve gotten harder while he’s gotten softer. Would our current versions find each other now? Or maybe we slide past each other with empty smiles and think about dinner plans and vacations that don’t include each other?
Time is a funny, unexpected thing. It feels linear and matter-of-fact when it really isn’t. There are brief moments—like the moment I saw my child, or the time I got into a car accident in Tallahassee—that stretch like taffy. And some years, like the year I turned 11, contracts so fully I swear I never lived them fully.
I wonder what would happen if we could fold time, as in a piece of speculative fiction, inserting our present selves somewhere in the past. What would we change? Who could we turn into? It is no coincidence that there has been a rise in popularity of time traveling mediums (such as Emma Straub’s This time tomorrow or that Outlander TV drama). With the figurative loss of years since the pandemic, many of us are eager to think of time as elastic. Like something you can win back, with just a bit of magic.
My grandmother often repeats stories. My mom calls it Old Timer’s, a twisted and adorable mispronunciation of Alzheimer’s. My grandmother forgets so much, though her body is as healthy as ever, a sturdy shell for a mind pulled backwards. My grandfather tells her she lives in the past, and in her washed out eyes I see it’s true. She is 16 again and holds his gaze on a dusty road in Vietnam. This year they will celebrate their 67th anniversary. Then and now, despite all the brutal love between them, they have chosen each other.
Would I choose my husband if we met today for the first time? Would he choose me? I really think so. Over the years it seems we’ve grown towards each other, rather than apart, and now we’re all tangled up – past selves battling present selves in a Tasmanian whirlwind. There is the hot rush of desire from the early days; the hope when we said our vows; ennui from that summer we couldn’t connect; the chaos of new parenthood; and later bliss to find our steps together again. A decade freckled by TV shows paired with cherry ice cream and bodies fitted together under a thick duvet, and fighting over Gin Rummy and walking along a heat-scooped arroyo, and baby toes lifted for kisses.
History is not everything; I know. It is often not enough. But for me, love stories – no matter how long they last – are a defiance of time. Despite the knowledge that our years are numbered, and despite the inherent risk of offering ourselves to others, we persevere, out of hope or a dogged willingness to flaunt our own mortality. Through our memories, we can often travel back in time together and relive a story that feels extraordinary, if only to ourselves.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, will be published in 2023 from HarperCollins. She has also written for Cup of Jo about books and motherhood and alternative fathers and physical affection. You can sign up for her newsletter here.
(Photo by Sidney Morgan/Stocksy.)